More than half a century since National Service ended, the City still retains an ex-military influence. Sophie McBain seeks out the real captains of industry
FIFTY YEARS AGO, the senior ranks of the City were dominated by former military officers, who after 48 weeks of harsh discipline and booming sergeant majors at Sandhurst and a few years’ service felt more than prepared for the clamour of the trading floor and boozy business lunches. A combination of the end of National Service in 1960 and the Big Bang 26 years later diluted the City’s traditional military culture, but it’s still far from uncommon for short service officers to swap their military fatigues for pinstripes, and whether it’s in the hushed lounges of the Cavalry and Guards Club or at regular regiment reunions and fundraisers, the two worlds of the City and the military collide more often than might be imagined.
Even as the number of new ex-military recruits dwindled in the Sixties and Seventies, many banks retained a certain military ethos. James Donald-Adkin, CEO of Amico Private Wealth Limited, recalls that when he joined Barclays in the Eighties it ‘still had a military-style command and control structure — the director’s dining room was called the chairman’s mess’. The big bank takeovers of 1986 helped end such talk, as did shifting public sensibilities, but it didn’t entirely stem the flow of military talent into banking. Rupert Phelps, director of international wealth management at BNY Mellon and former officer of The Life Guards, says he could name quite a few private banks that are still military-dominated, but ‘it’s quite a delicate thing, because they wouldn’t want to be projected as that’.
Former military officers entering the City tend to gravitate towards private banking or headhunting, because the army makes people good at building relationships and trust with people, says David Rosier, chairman of Thurleigh Investment Managers and former officer in the Queen’s Dragoon Guards. Following two tours of Northern Ireland, Rosier spent a year training junior soldiers, ‘working with boys who’d often never been away from home, and turning them a year later into smart, independent men, who are as tough as anyone would want’.
Mark Somers, the founder of executive search boutique Somers Partnership and a former officer in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, was sent to post-conflict Bosnia on ‘psychological operations’ to maintain peace between the Croatian, Serbian and Muslim factions. In modern corporate speak, it’s easy to see how young men faced with these complex tasks develop ‘transferable people management skills’.
Combat experience is something altogether different, but it’s especially relevant when young officers leaving the army today (and not necessarily voluntarily, given army redundancy plans) will have spent their time in the dusty, bloody battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The risks of post-traumatic stress disorder are well documented, but Hamish McFall, the chairman of Amico Private Wealth, believes his experience with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards has made him capable of taking decisions under pressure and has altered his perspective. ‘If people are in serious danger of being wounded, it puts a different perspective on things,’ he says. ‘When you realise no one’s going to die if you decide to invest in BP rather than Shell, say, it means you have a different perspective on things, and you can make a fairer judgement on what’s important as well as how the market’s going.’
The idea that ex-military bankers might invest differently from others is an interesting one. Could it be that risking your life for Queen and country makes you less likely to gamble away your nation’s finances? McFall believes this is true to some extent, for two reasons: first because military men and women have ‘retained their public-service ethos’, and second because they tend not to end up in the number-crunching back-office roles where opaque financial instruments are dreamed up and where most frauds originate.
Empirically this isn’t easy to prove, says Phelps. A military background can train people in ‘risk governance’ but ‘there are a lot of military-turned-investment bankers who’ve really been in the thick of this, so I would struggle to see a direct connection between serving your country and not taking excessive risk.’
AS WELL AS the ability to shoot straight and make a bed perfectly, Sandhurst aims to bring out the ‘officer qualities’ in its students. This could be summarised as the ‘ability to lead men, ultimately to their possible death, if you need to’, says McFall. Leadership skills are often desired in the workplace, but it’s hard to imagine Full Metal Jacket’s Sergeant Hartman carving out a successful second career as a private-client fund manager.
Phelps is quick to correct me. ‘There is a misapprehension that the army is just about shouting orders, and films don’t help,’ he says. ‘Sandhurst’s motto is ‘serve to lead’, which is an extremely good motto. Sometimes these things can be very annoying in a David Brent way, but it does encapsulate a great deal, because successful leaders can have an endless variety of different styles and can vary from the obviously alpha person to very quiet people.’
Not every leadership style is suited to private banking. ‘There was a chap in the Guards who would virtually bark at his clients, so it was quite clear to me that he wasn’t going to make a good private-client fund manager,’ says Rosier, but there are other useful qualities that many former military officers share: good timekeeping, discipline, loyalty, drive, communication skills and the ability to carry out instructions, take on responsibility and work in a team. Class is of course another factor — to use a euphemism favoured by my interviewees, the ‘ability to use a knife and fork’ is appreciated by private clients.
For women especially, a military background can be helpful when pursuing a financial career, says Susan Hill, ex-RAF officer and head of SCM Financial Planning. Having been the only female officer in a station of 2,000, Hill believes her RAF experience helps her hold her own in the male-dominated financial sector. (Interestingly, she says that even today she experiences far more ‘resistance and exclusion’ in the City than she did in the RAF 30 years ago.)
The military exerts its influence in the City in varied ways. Officers entering the financial sector often have ready-made networks of colleagues from their former regiment to call on and a large pool of men from the armed forces with whom they can easily find common ground. ‘The way the City used to work, and why it worked so well, was that individuals working in the City knew each other. To a certain extent, that’s what the military brings now, a cadre of people who know or trust and understand each other,’ says McFall.
Other organisations have been set up to help new army leavers find their way and meet the right people. The Officers’ Association is one, and in the early Eighties Rosier and three other Cavalry colleagues in the City set up the Cavalry Lunch Club, which hosts regular lunches with guest speakers, aimed at former officers needing career guidance.
But the best example of an activity that brings former army officers together and provides evidence of enduring loyalty to the armed forces is philanthropy. The City is peppered with veterans who devote their time to military fundraising, and they often have the skills and resources to do so effectively. Rosier chairs the Armed Forces Common Investment Fund, which manages the money of 85 military charities, and is a trustee of the Nuffield Trust for the Forces of the Crown. Somers and McFall both help run events and fundraise for their regiment’s charity, Caring for Courage.
Phelps has been involved with a BNY Mellon initiative with Haig Housing Trust, supporting its Coming Home campaign to help resettle disabled veterans. He found that social networks between the ex-military can easily be used for philanthropic purposes. For ten years BNY Mellon has been hosting the innocuously and entirely misleadingly named ‘Wives’ Club’, a boozy annual dinner for military men across the company. When BNY Mellon launched their initiative they realised they had a ready list of contacts to recruit to the cause.
The military and the City have very different public images: while bankers have never been more vilified, it has been a long time since returning soldiers have provoked such public sympathy. When the two institutions meet,it produces interesting results. While it’s hard to see if increasing the number of military men in the City will necessarily benefit the ailing financial services, given their philanthropic work, sending a few extra officers into the Square Mile could be a good thing for the military.
Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear’s